FCC panel convenes Katrina communications probe

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday opened an independent panel investigation into the effect of Hurricane Katrina on the nation's communications systems.

The panel, which includes members from private and public organizations, has been charged with providing the agency with a list of recommendations by June 15 on how to improve the nation's emergency response and communications systems.

Panel Chairwoman Nancy Victory said the investigation would be split into three working groups focusing on infrastructure resiliency, recovery coordination and procedures and emergency communications. The working groups will conduct their own research and collect testimony in between the full panel's meetings before the final report's June deadline.

"This is going to be a very intensive effort," Victory said.

In a taped message to the members of the panel, Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said it is crucial not to let the investigation become a superficial matter. He reminded the panel about communication problems that confounded rescue workers and law enforcement during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Concrete actions to fix our communications systems have been a long time coming -- too long. We saw the results of communications failures on 9/11, over four years ago. We saw them again during the East Coast blackout, and then more recently with the hurricanes. This time, we dare not fail in our emergency planning efforts," Copps said.

Copps also stressed the importance of allowing a broad range of voices to be heard during the investigation. He specifically asked panelists to pay attention to the needs of the disabled, who have no direct representation on the panel.

"There are a lot of stakeholders in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast whose lives were permanently affected by Katrina and the other storms," he said. "They not only deserve to be heard, they need to be heard."

Martin noted that the panel includes representation from minority groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also said there would be opportunities for groups not included on the panel to provide testimony to the working groups, and that the commission would keep the process as open as possible.

According to Martin, the FCC already is examining methods to ensure that Spanish-speaking communities have better access to emergency alerts, and that disabled communities will be considered in the investigation.

"Whether or not they're actually included in that whole panel doesn't indicate that the commission isn't committed to making sure that the disability community continues to have access to emergency alerts," Martin said.

Panelists also weighed in on which specific issues they would like to see resolved by the investigation.

Kevin Beary, the sheriff in Orange County, Fla., said panel members will need to get their egos "out of the closet" to objectively evaluate what happened during last year's storm season. Beary said they cannot skip steps by talking about making advanced technologies interoperable before they prove that they operate at all.

Louisiana State Police Deputy Superintendent Joseph Booth said he believed the panel would have to answer very basic questions about the capability of local and national emergency communications systems before moving forward to advanced discussions.

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